A Crisis of Identity for In Defence of Youth Work

In the second of our briefing papers ahead of next week’s seminars Lenny Sellars is challenging, even provocative. I’m sure he’s talking about me at one point and it’s not flattering! Brilliant, should make for an animated and necessary debate. There are still a few places left in both London and Manchester, so get in touch at tonymtaylor@gmail.com




Defending Democratic Youth Work and Fighting the Cuts – one and the same struggle?

Have we lost our way in forgetting, sometimes, the fundamentals of our campaign; whilst defending provision which practices are far from emancipatory? How do we view the spectre of major organisations such as NYA and NCVYS, along with many local authorities, accommodating uncritically and opportunistically to the government’s targeting and commissioning agenda

Is it possible to accept both these statements?

Thirty years ago Youth Work aspired to a special relationship with young people. It wanted to meet young women and men on their terms. It claimed to be ‘on their side’. Three decades later Youth Work is close to abandoning this distinctive commitment. Today it accepts the State’s terms. It sides with the State’s agenda.”


Britain’s youth services are world class. They’re far too good to lose.”


Campaign-wise, I think we face a bewildering conundrum and I’ve been confused ever since a campaign that defended youth work methodology was lost behind the banners and the chants about saving youth services. You see, I’m up for rescuing youth workers jobs but I feel really uncomfortable about actively protecting a youth service that accepted, nurtured and fed the strategies and systems that undermined youth work practice.

It seems uncharitable to be pedantic about youth work principles when jobs and livelihoods are at stake but I’m not suggesting that we as individuals should be celebrating the collapse of youth services more that we as a campaign need to be clear about our actions regarding the cuts in services.

Whose face do you see when you read the “Choose Youth” slogans? Maybe it’s the accumulated frustration that’s blurring my perspective but I don’t see the front-line worker. I see the bureaucrats and strategists who have (mis)shaped the service through rejecting and corrupting youth work values. The publicity says “Send them a message; a message that youth services change lives”. That isn’t the message that I want to send them (whoever “them” may be).

Is this the wrong time for us?

Maybe it’s the wrong time to be stirring opposition. Are we sure anymore what the opposition is?

We’re like someone who’s just been voted off the X-Factor; REFUSING to leave the stage; DEMANDING to be famous. We stand our ground looking bewildered, stomping our feet and screaming at the judges “But my mate Eric reckons I’m the new northern Sinatra!!”

We’ve tried to rationalise the nature and value of our craft for decades (not me personally, I’m obviously far too young) and look where it’s got us. And the most frustrating aspect of defending youth work is that we seem to be doing it in conflict with other youth workers.

It isn’t easy to keep standing up after you’ve been knocked down, time and time and time again. And we get beaten from every angle don’t we? The bureaucrats want us to give them something to count; funders want complex business plans; government want us to be an effective careers service – getting kids work-ready for jobs that don’t exist. Let’s face it, we just aren’t taken seriously. If we get too professionalised we lose the essence of our work and if we’re too informal we just become a laughable liability. People either detest and fear you because they think you’re a social worker or undervalue you because they think you’re a Butlins redcoat. We are an entirely misunderstood breed.

I think (in my current state of disillusionment) that a large percentage of people involved in youth work services prefer the incumbent culture of pre-determined outputs and formalised methodology and I think they prefer it because…

(a) it’s often safer and easier to work to a set structure
(b) the language of our campaign sounds like scary, left-wing extremist political sloganeering
(c) it’s the way of the world
(d) All of the above

And I think this is one of our biggest drawbacks to gaining recognition. We’re not even split down the middle, we’re split somewhere over to the far left hand side.

I’m still pursuing this notion that PURE youth work has no right to exist under the current socio-political conditions. Youth work was built on a foundation of philanthropic acts, where informal methodology was entirely acceptable. The rot set in as soon as we institutionalized it as a public service. Gradually, the informal methodology started to become unacceptable!

Or is this the best time for us?

And just to push the boundaries of controversy a little further – has the time ever been better for youth workers to reclaim youth work?

Positive for Youth. Is this the new focus for our defence?

I’d like to have at least seen some kind of apology written into ‘A Narrative for Youth Work Today’. How dare they brazenly rewrite the value system of youth work as if they own it? You would hope that at least one member of the commissioned advisers would have expressed the shame and disgrace of overtly butchering and crucifying the last remnants of ethical pride left under the battered banner of “youth work”. I suppose though that queuing up at the front of the line for your privileged meaty morsel of “youth work” commissioning that scruples are best left in a separate place along with your pride.

Are we too clever for our own good?

on the intellectualism of youth work. Sometimes, to intellectualise something you have to remove the emotion and the passion. You remove the qualities of the environment that surround a given situation. The noise and the smell of the inside of the mini-bus when the kids are starting to get bored and they want the “happy hardcore” turning up so loud that the inadequate speakers are buzzing like flatulent rhinos/hippos. If you give your heart to your work, then it’s your heart that speaks.

When I talk to youth workers about the campaign they describe it as either too political or too intellectual.

And I understand what they’re saying. I’m just a bloke from a background of poverty and coal-mining. I’m a product of an education system that expected very little from a raggy-arsed kid like me. People from my community didn’t go to college or university unless it was linked to the coal-mining industry. If you became an intellectual you moved away from “us” and moved towards “them”. Also, the closer you move to understanding Freire the further away you move from understanding the group of kids who are sat on your mini-bus.

I envy my uncles (on my father’s side) who were all prominent Union officials during the Miners strike. They were far from erudite but they spoke passionately and we all (the miners) understood what they were saying. Are we connecting with youth workers?

I would say that in my own youth work ethos and practice that intellect drives my actions and my method and my language but it does not present unless it is appropriate and required. I suppose for me personally this is an issue of semantics and cultural perceptions. From my cultural background, intellectuals and academics sit around in leather chesterfield chairs in tweed jackets, smoking pipes and stroking beards speaking in a language too technical for my own modest grasp.

So could we use a more direct, accessible and immediate language in the open debate about ‘defending youth work’ – so that maybe we can all join in? A debate that moves ‘outwards’ and not ‘inwards’. I think it is so easy to become detached from reality/practice when you’re not immersed in it on a day to day basis. I generally find that people who immerse themselves in theory tend to create theoretical solutions and become (accidental) idealists.

A Word version of Crisis of Identity to print out/circulate.

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